Sunday, February 19, 2017

Project 366 - Themes and Variations

To mark the fifth anniversary of ITYWLTMT, we are undertaking a long-term project that will introduce - and re-introduce - musical selections in the context of a larger thematic arc I am calling "A Journey of Musical Discovery". Read more here.

This month’s installment of Project 366 is another stand-alone theme with illustrations, this one dusting up a thematic arc from January 2014.

The Oldest Trick in the Book

In one of our earliest chapters, we talked about sonatas, and introduced the general concept of musical form – that is to say, the “method behind the madness” of organizing a piece of music. Forms can be very strict (the sonata form, or three-part form is a good example of that), and others can be less rigid, but form is after all form, and there has to be a set of “simple rules” that allow us to build a piece (or recognize how a piece is built). In his famous Omnibus television lecture on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Leonard Bernstein talked about form as “a mold of Jell-O”.

One example if a popular musical form is the “theme and variations”. In its simplest manifestation, a musical theme is “exposed” and is repeated in altered form or accompanied in a different manner through a set of variations “developed” from that theme. T & V structure generally begins with a theme (which is itself sometimes preceded by an introduction), typically between eight and thirty-two bars in length; each variation, particularly in music of the eighteenth century and earlier, will be of the same length and structure as the theme.

The basic principle of beginning with simple variations and moving on to more elaborate ones has always been present in the history of the variation form, since it provides a way of giving an overall shape to a variation set, rather than letting it just form an arbitrary sequence. In a way, this form may in part have derived from the practical inventiveness of musicians.

According to a fine article in Wikipedia, works in T & V form first emerge in the early sixteenth century. Keyboard works in variation form were written by a number of 16th-century English composers, including William Byrd, Hugh Aston and Giles Farnaby. Outstanding examples of early Baroque variations are the "ciaccone" of Claudio Monteverdi and Heinrich Schütz] Two famous variation sets from the Baroque era, both originally written for harpsichord, are George Frideric Handel's The Harmonious Blacksmith set, and Johann Sebastian Bach's Goldberg Variations.

In the Classical era, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote a great number of variations, such as the first movement of his Piano Sonata in A, K. 331, or the finale of his Clarinet Quintet. Joseph Haydn specialized in sets of double variations, in which two related themes, usually minor and major, are presented and then varied in alternation; outstanding examples are the slow movement of his Symphony No. 103, the Drumroll, and the Variations in F minor for piano, H XVII:6.

Musicians of the Classical era also could improvise variations; both Mozart and Beethoven made powerful impressions on their audiences when they improvised. Modern listeners can get a sense of what these improvised variations sounded like by listening to published works that evidently are written transcriptions of improvised performances, in particular Beethoven's Fantasia in G Minor, Op. 77, and Mozart's Variations on an Aria by Gluck, K. 455. Beethoven wrote many variation sets in his career. Some were independent sets, for instance the Diabelli Variations, and the Eroica Variations . Others form single movements or parts of movements in larger works, such as the variations in the final movement of the Third Symphony (Eroica).

We could continue the list through the Romantic (Chopin and Mendelssohn) and the Late Romantic (Johannes Brahms). Variation sets have also been composed by notable twentieth-century composers, including Sergei Rachmaninov (Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and his variations for solo piano on themes by Chopin and Corelli), Charles Ives (Variations on "America"), Arnold Schoenberg (Theme and Variations, Opp. 43a and 43b), and the list goes on…

A significant sub-set of the above consists of variations on a theme by another composer – Brahms’s variations on themes by Haydn and Paganini, Chopin, Liszt and many others based on operatic arias by Mozart and others, the list can go on for pages!

Your Listener Guides

Listener Guide #77 “TDMH June 1954”. Taken from the broadcast archives of the CBC, Glenn Gould performs the Goldberg Variations and other Bach favourites (ITYWLTMT Podcast # 161 - 20 June 2014)

Listener Guide #78 – “Tchaikovsjy Suites nos. 3 and 4”. From my vinyl collection, a pair of recordings of Tchaikovsky Orchestral; Suites, both with elaborate Theme and Variation movements (Vinyl’s Revenge NEW)

Listener Guide #79 – “Theme and Variations: Paganini Edition”. Rachmaninov, Brahms and Liszt use themes by Paganini in elaborate T & V works. (ITYWLTMT Podcast # 137 - 3 Jan 2014)

Listener Guide #80 – “Variations on a Song”. “Twinkle Twinlkle Little Star”, “The Carnival of Venice” and :”I Got Rhythm” are example of songs that get the T & V treatment in this montage. (ITYWLTMT Podcast # 139 - 17 Jan 2014)

Listener Guide #81 – “Variations for Orchestra”. A set of works for orchestra that exploit the T & V form by Elgar and Britten among others (ITYWLTMT Podcast #131 - 31 Jan 2014)

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Tchaikovsky Lost and Found

This is my post from this week's Tuesday Blog.

New Series: Cover 2 Cover

As my personal cache of downloads from old sites slowly diminishes, I plan to “spread out” my contributions to the Once Upon the Internet Series, making them bi-monthly. To fill the void, I am launching today a new series of posts which I am calling Cover 2 Cover, where I will be sharing complete albums which I have encountered during my mining activities. The primary source for these albums is a resource we all exploit, YouTube.

I’ve shared “complete albums” from YouTube before in my Vinyl’s Revenge series, but in those instances, these are albums of a certain vintage that I have in my vinyl collection. These new finds don’t necessarily fit that mold. Though most of the ones I have been planning for this series are “vintage”, there are a few that are more recent – these have been on the “open market” for a while, so at the very least I take that as a sign that the material is viewed as “good promotion” by their rightful owners.

(I don’t exclude contributing “vintage” material to YouTube myself outside of my vinyl oldies in the future, but I haven’t lined up anything in that vein, at least not yet.)

Tchaikovsky Reconstructions

For my first post in the Cover 2 Cover series, I have assembled tracks from a 2 CD Philips set of Tchaikovsky reissues titled “Complete Tone Poems”. This compilation contains eight works, but today’s feature focuses on three works in particular, which I have packaged along with a “filler” track for the purpose of this post. In the future (later this year, maybe next), I plan to bring the remaining tracks for a second post.

Whenever I prepare posts on Tchaikovsky, my first stop is the excellent site Tchaikovsky Research, a well-constructed wiki site that covers all-things Tchaikovsky. When we read details on opp. 76, 77 and 78, we can see a definite pattern in the site’s contents. It goes something like this:

After the first performance the composer destroyed the full score, but after his death it was reconstructed from the surviving orchestral parts and published [posthumously]

Fatum was written between September and December 1868 and titled as a “Symphonic Fantasy”. Though the composer didn’t provide a “back story” or a program describing the music, the concert notes at the Moscow premiere included these verses by Konstantin Batyushkov:

Do you recall the cry
Of gray Melchizedek as he prepared to die?
Man, he exclaimed, is born a slave; a slave
He must descend into the grave
And Death will hardly tell him why
He haunts the magic vale of tears,
Suffers and weeps, endures and disappears.
After the concert, Tchaikovsky told his brother Anatoly: "This is, I think, the best thing I have written to date—at least, so others say (a significant success)". The St-Petersburg premiere, conducted by Balakirev, didn’t go so well; the surviving correspondence between Balakirev and Tchaikovsky relating to Fatum and its performance contain critiques of the work, of which the one with the most unfavourable judgement was not sent to Tchaikovsky .This may explain why the work was destroyed, and reconstructed posthumously.

The symphonic ballad The Voyevoda is based on Aleksandr Pushkin's Russian translation of the Polish poem The Ambush: A Ukrainian Ballad by Adam Mickiewicz. The work is unconnected to Tchaikovsky's first opera, also called The Voyevoda (1867-68), or the melodrama he wrote for the stage play of the same name in 1886. In a letter to Pyotr Jurgenson, Tchaikovsky reported: "I shall now orchestrate the fantasia Voyevoda (on the subject of Pushkin's ballad), and will play it for the first time in Saint Petersburg at a concert of the Musical Society. I have been invited to conduct one of their concerts there". The scoring of the ballad was completed in September/October 1891. After hearing his new work played by the orchestra, Tchaikovsky became extremely dissatisfied, and the next day he destroyed it.: "My ballad The Voyevoda turned out to be so wretched, that the other day after the concert I tore it to shreds. It exists no more".

The third posthumous work programmed today is Tchaikovsky's first significant orchestral work, the overture to Aleksandr Ostrovsky's drama The Storm. Russian music and literary critic Herman Laroche later recalled:

In the summer of 1864, Pyotr Ilyich had to write a large overture, for which he chose himself the programme of Ostrovsky's The Storm. The orchestra he employed was ‘heretical', with bass tuba, English Horn. harp, tremolo and divided strings, bass drum and cymbals. He was probably optimistic in nurturing the hope that the requirements of the programme would exempt him from any punishment for failing to follow the usual guidelines. In any event, by the start of term, or perhaps somewhat earlier, he finished his work. I cannot recall the reason now, but he asked me to stand in for him, and sent me the score by post with a message to show it to Anton Grigoryevich. A few days later, Rubinstein told me to come and listen to his judgement. Never in my life did I receive such a dressing-down for my misdemeanours as on that day (as I recall, it was a beautiful Sunday morning), listening on behalf of someone else.
The overture was never performed during the composer's lifetime; it was heard for the first time only in 1896 at Mitrofan Belyayev's third Russian Symphony Concert in Saint Petersburg, conducted by Aleksandr Glazunov.

It’s interesting to listen to these works in the context of Francesca da Rimini, a like-minded, programmatic Tchaikovsky repertoire mainstay.

Happy Listening

Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Storm, Op. 76 [TH 36]
Fatum, Op. 77 [TH 41]
The voyevoda, Op. 78 [TH 54]
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
Eliahu Inbal, conducting

Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32 [TH 46]
New Philharmonia Orchestra
Igor Markevitch, conducting


Complete CD (8 tracks) -

Friday, February 10, 2017

Viola and Orchestra

No. 240 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages is this week's Friday Blog and Podcast. Mobile followers can listen to the montage on our Pod-O-Matic Channel, and desktop users can simply use the embedded player found on this page.


This week’s Blog and Podcast consider a trio of works intended for viola soloist and orchestra. The viola is, after all, the violin’s richer and mellower toned sibling yet its repertoire as a solo instrument is rather modest when compared to its little brother.

Some composers have written works for both instruments; Sir William Walton for example has composed concertos for both the violin and the viola. In a not-too-surprising twist of events, some well-known violiniss like Pinchas Zukerman, are established at playing either instrument as soloist, a trend that has included among others Maxim Vengerov and James Ehnes.

Sir William’s viola concerto did not make the cut this week, but we are reminded of the fact Paul Hindemith, himself a violist, premiered the work on 3 October 1929. Years later, on 19 January 1936, Hindemith travelled to London, intending to play his own viola concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. However, just before midnight on 20 January, King George V died. The concert was cancelled, but event organizers still wanted Hindemith's involvement in any music that was broadcast in its place.

Unable to agree on a suitable replacement piece, Hindemith took on the challenge of writing an entirely new piece - the following day, from 11 am to 5 pm, Hindemith sat in a BBC office and wrote Trauermusik from scratch (in all fairness, the work does borrow some material from his Marthis der Maler symphony and the afore-mentioned viola concerto), in homage to the late king. It was written for viola and string orchestra and was performed that evening in a live broadcast from a BBC radio studio, with Sir Adrian Boult conducting and the composer as soloist.

The Swiss philanthropist and music patron Werner Reinhart later told Gertrud Hindemith "there was something Mozartian" about her husband’s writing Trauermusik in half a day, and premiering it the same day. "I know no one else today who could do that", he said.

The large work featured in today’s podcast was written by Hector Berlioz for another rather famous violinist who enjoyed playing the viola: Niccolò Paganini. The two first met in1833, three years after the premiere of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Paganini had acquired a superb viola, a Stradivarius—"But I have no suitable music. Would you like to write a solo for viola? You are the only one I can trust for this task."

When Paganini saw early sketches of the piece - Harold in Italy after Childe Harold's Pilgrimage by Lord Byron - with all the rests in the viola part, he told Berlioz it would not do, and that he expected to be playing continuously. They then parted, with Paganini disappointed. Harold was premiered on 23 November 1834 to much acclaim. Nearly four years later; Paganini finally heard the work he had commissioned; he was so overwhelmed by it that, following the performance, he dragged Berlioz onto the stage and there knelt and kissed his hand before a wildly cheering audience and applauding musicians In the version I programmed today, the viola soloist is Mr. Zukerman.

To complete the podcast, I chose James Ehnes (playing the viola) in a “potpourri” for viola and orchestra by Johann Nepomuk Hummel.

I think you will love this music too! 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

*** Now on Twitter ***

*** Follow ITYWLTMT on TWITTER ***

Prompted by a contest this month on Pod-O-Matic, I have decided to add TWITTER to our social media platforms. I don't know if this will be an enduring presence or just something I am trying out, depends on how much traction we get.

Our handle is @itywltmt